George Mahood, 37, thought an Ironman triathlon was just for the unhinged, but when a spinal tumour threatened his ability to walk, he quickly signed up for one.
Words: Debbi Marco ~ Pictures: George Mahood, Finisherpix
To say George Mahood, a writer from South Devon, was a pretty inexperienced triathlete two years ago is no exaggeration. The father of three had only taken part in one pool-based sprint triathlon but didn’t go back.
George relied on a few marathons and his regular football games to keep himself fit and healthy, so it was a big shock when in April 2014, he was diagnosed with a spinal cord tumour. “I started noticing back problems and getting pains in my legs. After some physiotherapy, which didn’t help, I was sent for an MRI scan in August,” explains George. “I was diagnosed with a spinal cord tumour at the bottom of my spine. It was pretty terrifying. There was still a good chance it was benign but I would need surgery as things were only going to get worse.”
A scan in December 2014 revealed there were no other tumours and George was finally wheeled into surgery in April 2015. “My only option was to go for it,” says George. “Luckily it was benign and the surgeon got it all out, but because it was inside the spinal cord there was a risk of a spinal cord fluid leak so I had to lie horizontal for 72 hours as change of pressure could cause one.” It was during that time, high on morphine and the success of his operation that George’s Ironman plan started to form. “While I was lying there I knew I had two possibilities – spend my life thinking my back wasn’t as strong as it used to be and constantly trying to protect it, or I could use it as a way to get fitter than I was,” he says. “Because they didn’t structurally change my back, there was no reason for it to be weaker. So once the muscles had healed it could be just as strong. I needed there to be a goal at the end of it.”
George went through the options in his mind. Although he’d done a couple of marathons he’d never really enjoyed them. Plus, running was at the end of the physiotherapist’s list of things he could do in his recovery. “I decided cycling would be no way to judge my progress as that was the one thing that hadn’t hurt too much before surgery,” he says. “I knew I’d be allowed to go swimming quite early so that’s what tempted me towards triathlon.”
For George, triathlon was the perfect way to combine everything, and once it was in his mind, an Ironman was the only option. “I used to think an Ironman was completely ludicrous until I was lying in my hospital bed unable to walk. Then it seemed the logical thing to sign up for. “When I told my wife she thought it was a crazy idea but then after 10 minutes said I should go for it.”
George settled on Ironman Vichy as his race, largely because it was just over four months from his operation allowing him enough time to recover, but not too much time to obsess over his training. For the first three weeks after his operation all George could do was walk. “I walked to end of the drive, then I walked a little bit further each day until I was doing a nice little four mile circuit.”
After about three weeks George ventured to the swimming pool. “I thought I knew how to swim front crawl but I had to relearn from scratch. I had a few lessons and spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos on technique, focussing on that rather than distance.”
Then five weeks after his surgery, George began to cycle, starting at 10 miles and gradually increasing his distance. “I built up my mileage and entered the Dartmoor Classic sportive, which was 57 miles. It was the first proper cycling event I’d entered. Looking around, everyone had cycling shoes and Lycra while I just had normal shorts and trainers. I knew I had a long way to go.”
By this point, 10 weeks after surgery, George still hadn’t done any running. His plan was to focus mostly on his cycling, considering half his time at the race would be on the bike. “I knew I had to get fit enough to cycle 112 miles and
still have something left,” says George. He gradually upped his distances and entered Ride London as well as a few other local 100 mile bike rides. While his cycling was strong, George was still struggling with his swimming.
“I went for a couple of open water swims and they were fairly disastrous,” admits George. “I needed to test myself and give myself confidence so I entered Plymouth Breakwater swim where they load 200 swimmers into boats and take you 2.2 miles out to sea. I had no idea how small Plymouth would look when you’re 2.2 miles out to sea. There were a few major panic attacks on the way back to shore with a mixture of breaststroke and front crawl. It took me about one hour and 40 minutes, but I did it, just two weeks before my Ironman.”
By the time George set off for France he’d only run one 10k in his training because he didn’t want to risk injury and hoped the couple of marathons he’d done in the past would be enough to get him through.
“The campsite in France was full of Ironmen which was incredibly intimidating,” says George. “They kept going off on training rides and I spent the week playing crazy golf with the kids. But the thing that worried me most was that France was suffering from a heat wave and the water might be too warm to allow wetsuits.” Thankfully on the day of the race, the water was less than one degree inside the wetsuit cut off temperature. After misplacing his timing chip just minutes before the start, George was ready to put himself to the ultimate test.
“By the time I got to the water I felt a sense of relief,” he says. “I knew I’d done all the training and could do all the different elements. It was just whether I could put them together. “I was constantly panicking in the swim that I was last but when I saw there were swimmers behind me I felt better.
“I managed just under 1hr and 40mins and it still involved a lot of breast stroke but my front crawl was effective enough to make up for it.”
However it was the bike leg with a strong headwind and temperatures of over 40 degrees that really put George under pressure.
“I started hallucinating and with both my water bottles empty I couldn’t remember what lap I was on. All around me cyclists were sheltering under trees with ambulances coming over. A lot of people dropped out on the bike leg.”
The bike leg took George around 7hrs 20 and he was delighted to have survived it, but he had no idea what his legs would feel like on the run.
“I just used a technique that a few people had told me about which was running from aid station to aid station. In Ironman they’re so well stocked it’s every 2.5km so I tried to make myself eat and drink then run to the next one. Basically it was like a long miserable picnic.”
The one thing that stayed strong was George’s back. To the delight of his wife Rachel and his three children Layla, Leo and Kitty, George crossed the line in just under 14 hours.
“It was an incredible experience I’ll never forget. I would have said an Ironman was just for crazy people, but that was until I couldn’t sit up, then I felt almost invincible. I never thought I’d be grateful for having a spinal cord tumour but it turned out to be quite a blessing.
‘Operation Ironman: One Man’s Four Month Journey from Hospital Bed to Ironman Triathlon’ by George Mahood is available on Amazon, £8.99
First Published in Triathlon Plus Magazine, August 2016.